Cobb County law enforcement needs to pursue felony murder charges against opioid dealers in the fight against fatal overdoses, Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr says.

Hosting the fifth meeting of the Statewide Opioid Task Force in Marietta on Friday, Carr said only a few Georgia drug dealers have been successfully prosecuted for murder in relation to deaths associated with their illegal product.

“This needs to happen more often,” Carr told the 100-plus people gathered for the meeting, including dozens of law and public safety heavyweights and civic leaders from throughout metro Atlanta who descended on Marietta First United Methodist Church for three hours of discussion.“Whether it’s you yourself, a family member, someone you work with or a friend, everybody is affected by this crisis,” Carr said. “This is an issue that knows no geographic, demographic or economic boundaries.”

Task force data shows almost 9,000 Georgians have died from opioid overdoses in the past two decades and over 180,000 others currently live in the state with an opioid use disorder.

Closer to home, in Marietta, 10 people died from opioid overdoses in 2018 and law enforcement officers administered Narcan — a narcotic used to treat narcotic overdose — 100 times while reviving others who had overdosed on opioids in the city.

Marietta Police Chief Dan Flynn spoke at Friday’s meeting about his team’s efforts to address opioid addiction and the department’s partnership with The Zone — a 21,000-square-foot treatment and rehabilitation facility in Marietta funded by The Davis Direction Foundation.

“Earlier this year, we decided to take a look at how we were doing in fighting the opioid crisis and we knew the news would not be good, but we were absolutely stunned when we looked at our own numbers,” Flynn said. “Marietta is a city of about 65,000 people, so to have 10 deaths from opioid overdose and close to 100 other overdose incidents where Narcan was administered, the problem is still very severe.”

Chief Flynn decided his officers needed to be more focused on intervention and reaching out to opioid addicts in addition to traditional crime-fighting methods.

“We are very vibrant in enforcement and arresting the bad guys and we’ll continue to aggressively go after the sellers and traffickers,” he said. “But we realized we needed to do more to help these addicts, who I don’t see as a population of criminals but rather as a public health problem.”

Now any time Marietta police, fire or ambulance officers encounter someone who has overdosed on opioids, they pay a second visit to those people within 24 hours of administering Narcan to tell them about the local treatment and rehabilitation resources available and encourage them to get the help they need to kick their habit.

Chief Flynn said it’s not an easy task, as many addicts don’t trust law enforcement, but it’s something he’ll continue to prioritize.

“Bringing someone out of the cold is a two-part process. Addicts get clean and sober in treatment, but they get well in the community and in recovery.”

The Davis Direction Foundation CEO Missy Owen, who established the organization in 2014 three weeks after her 20-year-old son, Davis, died from a heroin overdose, is excited to be partnering with Marietta police.

Owen said the foundation is Cobb’s first and only opioid recovery support organization.

The Zone, which officially opened in September 2016, averages over 3,500 visits a month, she said at the meeting, outlining the progress being made locally to help addicts recover.

Owen said the facility is run and operated by peers in recovery, hosts 36 meetings a week and in 2018 had 37,511 member visits.

It also offered 1,562 recovery support meetings last year and distributed 4,315 hours of community service to people on parole and probation as a state-approved provider.

The organization has benefited from over 3,000 hours of volunteer service, boasts almost 7,000 social media connections and continues to grow with financial support from its two associated thrift stores and a coffee shop, Owen said.

Friday’s meeting was also a chance for three metro Atlantans to share their personal experiences with opioids.

Peachtree City resident Doreen Barr held up two photographs of her son, Ryan, as she spoke about his premature death in May 2015 from taking heroin-laced Fentanyl following a yearslong drug problem, which stemmed from his university football team doctor prescribing strong painkillers, including Oxycontin, for sports injuries over several years.

“He was basically a functioning addict for two years in college and we didn’t know,” Barr said. “There are four members from his college football team that died of overdoses. This doctor has now passed away, otherwise I’d go find him.”

Barr said following Ryan’s death, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation linked his phone to a drug dealer from The Bluff — a high-crime area in Atlanta.

Two weeks later, Ryan’s dealer was one of 14 drug suppliers from The Bluff to be arrested, Barr said, but within two days of the GBI sting, all but one dealer had bonded out of jail and was back on the streets.

Barr said her eldest son used Ryan’s cellphone to contact the dealer and arrange a time to meet so he could kill him.

“Luckily he didn’t,” she said. “We went to court and saw the dealer, who had a fourth grade education and was a 19-year-old kid himself. He didn’t even look at us, and when they threatened him with murder, he took a six-year plea deal.”

Barr said the dealer was moved to a federal prison in West Virginia and was released in early June after serving three years.

She’s now committed to warning students of opioid addiction through a nonprofit foundation in her son’s name, which offers rehab scholarships among other resources.

Recovering addict Chris Bryson, a Dunwoody resident, shared his story to illustrate how a good education, prosperous career and loving family have no bearing on drug abuse.

“I would go 5 miles from my house and get a $20-a-night seedy hotel room to get high and drunk,” he said. “This is not a discriminating disease; it’s not about race, religion, sex or social economic status.”

Judge Stacey Hydrick, of the DeKalb County State Court, shared her 22-year-old son Danny’s addiction story publicly for the first time, choking back tears as she recalled the first red flag — a call from his school about the then-seventh grader being high on a prescription sedative known as Ambien that he’d stolen from his grandmother.

Hydrick said her son hid and denied his drug addiction for years until rehabilitation helped him get sober nine months ago.

“He graduated from university in May, he’s working and he wants to become a high school English teacher where he can be a positive influence for kids.”

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